It is always difficult discussing natural disasters, even more so in the case where dozens of human lives have been lost in the most horrific way imaginable. Against the backdrop of the ongoing heatwave affecting huge swathes of the globe, the prospect of further climate change looms large.
The circumstances that allowed the wildfires in Greece to happen are many: the extraordinarily strong wind, the high temperatures, and the site, which was a summer resort for citizens of Athens usually of average to low income. (Those with higher incomes invest in land in more prestigious areas.) It is July, so the resort was full of people who modify their work schedule to allow for a quick trip to the coast an hour away from Athens.
Property and arson
To understand the significance of this event we must look at the political context. Although it has been over a decade since a disaster on this scale, fires breaking out is not uncommon during the summer in Greece. And there is good reason that the public blames someone other than the careless tourist who threw a lit joint or some group of naïve teens that wanted to roast marshmallows on a meadow.
Fire incidents in Greece are widely regarded as acts of arson, as for decades they have been closely connected to the profit-seeking urban expansion plans of industry. Elements of the geography of Greece (mainly mountainous or semi-mountainous areas that are usually forested) sometimes obstruct plans for heavy industry and tourist facilities; it is in the interests of industry that forests be cleared one way or another. Tourism is the most profitable sector in Greece, and indicators only prove it to be more and more profitable with record high arrivals in the last two years. With the requirements of capital determining policy, the governments of the past and the present have always kept the door open for investments of this kind, and as far as construction investment is concerned, the bigger the project, the bigger the profit margin.
The private interests of the Greek petit-bourgeois are also in play. For decades they have been trying to build in illegal locations in search of a calm and remote place, in the belief that the rules will be bent when it’s convenient, something very recently justified as the SYRIZA-ANEL government made the relevant legislation a lot more lenient on these cases.
The government has persistently allowed private interests in construction, industry and tourism to be prioritised over serious ecological and safety concerns. The state likes to claim that it defends the public from devious individuals, but in practice it is there to protect profits, first and foremost. The Greek state can no longer hide from its failures to allocate adequate resources to social welfare and vital services. Initially there was the argument concerning the public debt; the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU forced the Greek government to pursue privatization and austerity, including tens of millions of euros’ worth of cuts to the fire service over the years. Almost ten years later, this argument has worn out. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras boasts that after all the sacrifice a closure will be reached, with a slow-paced exit from financial controls and the possible departure from the clutches of the IMF. The government already has blood on its hands, and that blood derives from the disastrous policies they have introduced thanks to their complicity with the EU and the IMF, such as locking in an obligatory surplus in the state budget.
Apart from that, the Greek state’s imperialist policies are in alignment with NATO’s interests in the region; it is in a location of high strategic importance, which implies high military expenditures. As a matter of fact, Greece has the second largest military expenditures in relation to GDP amongst the NATO countries. Military expenditures mean aeroplanes, tanks, ships and helicopters – but the fire service has fewer and fewer firefighting aircraft.
Solidarity and hope
The solidarity response was astonishing. Volunteers of all ages, but especially young people, showed up, while at the same time hospitals all over Athens witnessed long queues of people answering the call for blood donation. The amount of funds and resources collected is also reason to be hopeful. The most interesting aspect is the demographics of this response. Egyptian workers, Kurdish societies, Syrian and Iraqi refugees are all helping in an active way, either practically taking part in various rescue attempts or by providing for the ones in need. Roma people also appeared, even though during the last month they have been facing tensions with the police and the far right. The state of Macedonia offered 100.000€, while in Turkey the hashtag #GeçmişOlsunKomşu (may everything pass neighbour) was the top trend on Twitter.
Natural disasters are a class issue
Fire casualties are always a class issue. British society was reminded of that fact by the tragedy of Grenfell tower. In the Greek case it is not so different. Arson is committed for the sake of private investment interests; the state prevention policy is non-existent. This has sadly been proven in previous cases of fires and flooding that have led to destruction and loss of life. The first to suffer are those without other options. Horrific stories have surfaced in the last few days – but also astonishing stories of solidarity. If there is an alternative, it is with the migrants that stood up and lent a hand to a society that treated them as aliens for decades, and the part of the left that dares to point to the ones responsible while abstaining from vain cries for the reinforcement of oppressive elements of the state apparatus.
Read the statement from ANTARSYA (The Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left) here.